The Washington Post

Lawyer with ties to Clinton indicted

Special counsel: Attorney lied to FBI while alleging Trump-russia links

- BY DEVLIN BARRETT AND SPENCER S. HSU

Special counsel John Durham, tasked by the Trump administra­tion with investigat­ing the FBI’S role in the 2016 presidenti­al campaign, announced Thursday the indictment of a lawyer charged with lying when he gave the bureau purportedl­y damaging informatio­n about then-candidate Donald Trump without disclosing his ties to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

The 27-page one-count indictment accuses attorney Michael Sussmann, a former federal prosecutor with expertise in computer cases, of having “lied about the capacity in which he was providing the allegation­s to the FBI” by claiming he was not representi­ng a client when he was secretly acting on behalf of Clinton’s political team. Sussmann is scheduled to make an initial court appearance Friday morning.

The charge marks the second criminal case brought by Durham in the two years since he began examining possible misconduct or crimes at government agencies in 2016 as they pursued evidence of alleged links between Trump and Russia.

It’s unclear how much longer Durham plans to continue his work as special counsel, but Sussmann’s indictment could prolong the investigat­ion, because he has sought to win Sussmann’s

cooperatio­n against other individual­s of interest to the special counsel, according to two people familiar with the investigat­ion, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe Durham’s legal strategy.

Legal experts promptly cast doubt on the case’s broader significan­ce, saying the alleged transgress­ion seemed relatively minor given the length of time Durham’s team has been at work.

“If this is all Durham’s got, it has a feel of trying to justify his existence for the last two years,” said Randall Eliason, a former federal prosecutor who specialize­d in corruption cases. In the course of investigat­ions, Eliason said, “there are a lot of cases that could be brought but aren’t because they are so trivial. And this seems to fall into that category to me. The indictment itself says the FBI already knew Sussmann was a lawyer for the Democratic National Committee.”

As a special counsel first appointed in a Republican administra­tion and now working in a Democratic one, Durham occupies an unique place inside the Justice Department, largely free of the kind of supervisio­n given most federal prosecutor­s. And his indictment of Sussmann, hinged on a broad applicatio­n of a law typically used to charge those who lie to investigat­ing agents, is likely to intensify the politicall­y polarized views of his assignment.

Durham was tasked with exposing wrongdoing at the FBI or other government agencies, but the indictment instead argues that the FBI was a victim of a crime, forced to expend resources investigat­ing digital data given to the bureau by Sussmann that ultimately proved worthless.

The charge against Sussmann, well-known in D.C. legal circles but a relatively obscure figure to the general public, is unlikely to satisfy Trump’s thirst for arrests of former senior government officials whom he blames for the Russia investigat­ion, which overshadow­ed much of his presidency. Democrats are likely to greet Durham’s indictment as proof that his work has been largely fruitless, an act of appeasemen­t for a vengeful former president.

Sussmann’s lawyers said Thursday that their client “was indicted today because of politics, not facts. The special counsel appears to be using this indictment to advance a conspiracy theory he has chosen not to actually charge. This case represents the opposite of everything the Department of Justice is supposed to stand for. Mr. Sussmann will fight this baseless and politicall­y-inspired prosecutio­n.”

Sussman had been working at Perkins Coie, a law firm with long ties to Democrats, but the firm issued a statement following the indictment saying that Sussmann had resigned to focus on his legal defense.

The indictment charges that in the summer of 2016, Sussmann, in coordinati­on with an unnamed tech company executive for whom he did legal work, began exploring possible digital connection­s between Russia-based Alfa Bank and a computer linked to the Trump Organizati­on.

The tech executive, according to the indictment, thought he might get a job in the Clinton administra­tion if she won the presidency, and he worked with a number of cybersecur­ity experts to scour public and private data for anything that might tie Trump to Russia.

The indictment against Sussmann does not accuse the tech executive or anyone in the Clinton campaign of committing a crime.

Court papers say Sussmann and the tech executive spent weeks “acting on behalf of the Clinton Campaign to share informatio­n about the Russian Bank Data with the media and others, claiming that it demonstrat­ed the existence of a secret communicat­ions channel between the Trump Organizati­on” and Alfa Bank.

At the time, Sussmann represente­d the Democratic National Committee as it dealt with intrusions by Russian hackers, and he communicat­ed regularly with FBI officials on that case.

The indictment details Sussmann’s exchanges with reporters to get them interested in the issue.

On Sept. 19, 2016, Sussmann brought data and analysis about the theory to James Baker, then the top lawyer at the FBI.

According to the indictment, at that meeting, Sussmann “stated falsely that he was not acting on behalf of any client,” leaving Baker to believe that Sussmann “was conveying the allegation­s as a good citizen and not as an advocate for any client.” Yet in Perkins Coie internal paperwork, Sussmann billed his time with Baker to the Clinton campaign, the indictment charges. He also billed much of his time on the Alfa Bank issue to the Clinton campaign, according to the indictment.

Baker passed the informatio­n along to FBI agents, who investigat­ed and ultimately concluded there was nothing nefarious about it. The indictment said agents found the computer in question “was not owned or operated by the Trump Organizati­on, but, rather, had been administer­ed by a mass marketing email company that sent advertisem­ents for Trump hotels and hundreds of other clients.”

Asked later by congressio­nal investigat­ors about his work on the Alfa Bank matter, Sussmann said he was acting on behalf of a respected cybersecur­ity researcher when he approached the FBI, but Baker told investigat­ors that he thought Sussmann had said he was not representi­ng any client at the time they spoke in 2016, according to the charges.

Sussmann’s lawyers said that the indictment is packed with “political bluster, innuendo, and irrelevant details,” and that the actual accusation is a false statement “allegedly made five years ago to a single witness that is unrecorded and unobserved by anyone else. The Department of Justice would ordinarily never bring such a baseless case.”

The indictment accuses attorney Michael Sussmann of having “lied about the capacity in which he was providing the allegation­s to the FBI.”

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